Kim Gottlieb-Walker On the Set with John Carpenter

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Terry was thrilled to speak to Kim Gottlieb-Walker about her work with John Carpenter, which is captured by her glorious photography on display in her book On the Set with John Carpenter.  Kim was the still photographer on five John Carpenter films including Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, Halloween II and Christine.  Check out what the “Lenswoman” has to say about making those landmark movies with the legendary director.

Terry Wickham:  What got you interested in photography and when did you first start taking pictures?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker:  My mother was a photographer’s assistant in the 1940s when she first met my father and she taught me about light and truly seeing how it reflected off faces and eyes. I had a little box camera when I was a kid and she gave me her fixed lens, non-reflex 35mm camera to take with me when I left for my freshman year at U.C. Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement happened that year and I photographed Joan Baez performing for the crowd and the FSM flags hanging from the occupied administration building. I took the only class about movies they had at Berkeley back then and transferred in the middle of my sophomore year to UCLA to major in Motion Picture Production.

TW:  What were your first jobs as a photographer?

KGW:  My film school teacher at UCLA, Bill Kerby, used to do interviews for the Free Press to get free concert tickets. I used to go with him to shoot the interviews and help run his lightshow. I was 20 when I did portraits of Jimi Hendrix during one of those interviews. After graduation, I worked for the underground press for awhile and did some traveling – shot a few assignments for Time Out in London and eventually became the head photographer for Music World Magazine…where I met my future husband, Jeff Walker who was the editor.

TW:  How did you know Debra Hill and how exactly did the gig come about for being the Still Photographer on John Carpenter’s Halloween?

KGW:  Our next door neighbor in Laurel Canyon was Robert Mitchum’s daughter, Trina, who was a photographer working on low budget, Indie films and she saw my portfolio and recommended me to a producer/director who needed a still person for his next movie. So that was my first movie experience. As far as I know, it was never released, but the script supervisor was Debra Hill and the DP and operator were Dean Cundey and Ray Stella. When Debra went on to write and produce Halloween with John, she remembered us and asked us to shoot for them.

TW:  Had you always planned or wanted to work on movies?

KGW:  I always loved movies. At UCLA I hoped to be a camera operator, but had no contacts within the industry…but stills I could do on my own, which led to working on movies.

TW:  What’s the difference between shooting stills on a movie versus music performers or television?

KGW:  On both movies and television, the lighting is provided by the dp and gaffer and anything outside of the scenes themselves is captured with the available natural light. I was used to working with whatever light was already there, whether it was during interviews with musicians in hotel rooms near a window or performing under stage lights, so working on movies was an easy transition. Either way, I was always economical about how much I would shoot (film and processing was expensive!) and always waited for the right moment and made every shot count.

TW:  When you worked on Halloween, where you on set every shooting day?

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KGW:  Every minute.

TW:  Were you ever given instruction by Debra Hill or John Carpenter in terms of what to shoot or was it you doing what you thought was best “on the fly.”

KGW:  They left it to me. I knew what was needed – the key images of each scene, portraits of all the principal actors and documentation of the whole experience. I was the documentarian of the production.

TW:  What was the working tone on Halloween? Was it tense and tight or loose and fun? I ask because we all know the film was made for the most part by a young inexperienced crew.

KGW:  The director sets the tone – and John always knew, shot by shot, exactly what he needed, knew how to communicate that to his excellent crew and was always good humored and fun to work with. So even though the film only had a 5 week schedule, each day was fast, efficient and FUN!

TW:  Tell us how Debra Hill was. What was her working style and was she hands on or off on Halloween?

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KGW:  Debra had worked with John on the script, assembled the entire crew and made sure everyone had everything they needed to do their jobs. She was a tiny dynamo – hands on in the best possible ways. A terrific producer.

TW:  What was your initial impression of John Carpenter?

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KGW:  That he was absolutely on top of his game – incredibly well prepared, efficient and yet easy going…and he loved and respected every member of his crew and appreciated the skills each one of us brought to the project.

He also had a dry, mischievous sense of humor.

TW:  What was your call time on Halloween? Did you have to be there when everyone else was getting ready?

KGW:  My call time was the same as the rest of the camera crew. There was always stuff to shoot!

TW:  Did you have much contact with Director of Photography Dean Cundey and did your jobs crisscross at all?

KGW:  I’d sometimes check with Dean about the light levels and with Ray about the framing and how to shoot scenes without getting in the way. They were always helpful.

TW:  Did you observe Cundey’s approach to lighting? His use of light and lens on Halloween is eye-popping and startling.

KGW:  Dean understood the use of light and shadow…he is a brilliant cinematographer and a really nice person.

I love him dearly. He worked really well with gaffer Mark Walthour and I just documented the images they created

TW:  What is your feelings about the actors you worked with in Halloween?

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KGW:  Jamie Lee Curtis was only 19 – her first starring role in a feature film, and though she felt insecure at first, she cooperated completely and even re-enacted scenes for me.

Donald Pleasence was an old pro…a joy to work with. Always willing to pose. Great fun.

Nancy Keys and P.J. Soles were wonderful – PJ was the more experienced actor of the two, but both were terrific, cooperative, professional and easy to work with.

Nick Castle is one of the sweetest guys you’d ever meet. He was just there to be helpful – and ended up playing The Shape most of the time and did it brilliantly. A very friendly, funny, nice guy.

TW:  Did you have any gumption at the time you working on Halloween, that it would turn out to be the suspenseful terrifying movie that it is?

KGW:  We were kids having a blast making a movie. John wanted to make a Hitchcockian suspense film and he accomplished what he set out to do, though the students at USC they screened it for dismissed it as garbage. History has proven John a master filmmaker. We were just happy to be working!

TW:  What’s something about Halloween that most people would not know?

KGW:  There’s no blood in it. It is regarded as the father of the slasher genre…but there are no flying limbs, no decapitations, no blood…it works because it is a skillful use of suspense and the viewers’ imagination.

TW:  What are your most endearing couple memories from working on Halloween?

KGW:  It was the beginning of my relationship with John, Debra and that wonderful crew, most of whom went on to brilliant careers. A very happy time for all of us.

TW:  How early in the production were you asked to participate on John Carpenter’s The Fog?

KGW:  As soon as Debra started putting the crew together!

TW:  You had to travel up north to Point Reyes/Inverness, California right? Did you fly or drive? I ask because I’m curious what the production could afford?

KGW:  I can’t remember I think most of us flew, but I truly don’t remember.

TW:  What was the atmosphere like on The Fog having worked already with most of the same key crew members on Halloween?

KGW:  It was a great reunion! Being on location for the first time was a blast!

TW:  Was John Carpenter any different on The Fog as opposed to Halloween? I ask because he had experienced the success of Halloween and on this film he was in love with Adrienne Barbeau.

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KGW:  He and Adrienne initially decided to keep a low profile…which lasted about 5 minutes. They were very sweet together. The atmosphere was just as efficient and upbeat as Halloween, though fog is a difficult character to direct.

TW:  How was it working with Production Designer/Editor Tommy Lee Wallace? I think his contributions to these early John Carpenter movies played a crucial role in their quality.

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KGW:  Tommy was great…and whenever the set came into play (as in the scene where the Shape rams his hand through the kitchen door) Tommy would don the suit and mask and be the Shape because he knew the exact spot that would give way.

TW:  From what you could see, was there any difference on this movie in how Carpenter and Debra Hill worked together? Because obviously they were not a couple anymore like they were on Halloween.

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KGW:  They were still a fantastic team. It seemed like more of a brother sister relationship, good friends, and they always encouraged and supported each other, from what I could see. I was not aware of any tension at all!

TW:  Talk about the ensemble cast. If you don’t mind, give me something about each actor:

KGW:  Adrienne Barbeau is a wonderful, warm sweet lady – great to work with.

Jamie Lee Curtis is still, to this day, one of the nicest people in the world

Janet Leigh was a pro…always knew her lines and hit her marks and was sweet and funny.

Tom Atkins was easy going, good humored and a pleasure to work with.

Hal Holbrook and John Houseman were only there briefly – Houseman for only one day and he did no scenes with any of the other principal actors. Hal Holbrook was one of my mother’s favorite actors and he was kind enough to sign a photo for her – he wrote (much to her delight) “Dear Blanche, Thank you for the greatest night of my life.” It gave her a great laugh and she kept it framed on the piano.

TW:  I loved seeing your photos of Kurt Russell’s visit to The Fog set. Was he there because he was going to do Escape From New York or was it because he made the Elvis TV movie with Carpenter?

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KGW:  He met John doing Elvis …but I think that trip to The Fog set may have included discussions about Escape. I never hear anything when I’m shooting, so I don’t know for sure.

TW:  Carpenter and Hill both appear in the film uncredited. What scene was Debra Hill in?

KGW:  I don’t remember! John was the church handyman. He cringes when he sees himself acting in that scene.

TW:  Did you have any interaction with young Special Make-Up Effects master-to-be Rob Bottin?

KGW:  Not really…just documenting the great effects!

TW:  It’s quite known that John Carpenter felt the movie didn’t work after the first cut. Did you see that version of the film before the new footage was shot to spice up the film?

KGW:  Nope…just the final film.

TW:  When my wife and I were on our Honeymoon back in 1997, we stopped to see Point Reyes lighthouse (used in The Fog). That’s the windiest place I’ve ever been. What do you recall about being there up on that cliff overlooking the ocean with all the trees & grass permanently bent sideways because of the constant wind?

KGW:  It was a bit chilly and foggy…so we bundled up!

TW:  Speak about Escape From New York. You obviously had to travel out to St. Louis. How long was the shoot for Escape?

KGW:  I did not get to go to St Louis for the first two weeks of shooting. It was our first union film and in those days there were very strict rules about shooting in the jurisdiction of other Locals…and at that time there were three separate camera locals in the east, west and center of the country. So Debra had to use a local Chicago still photographer, Bill Coe, who did a great job. When they got back to LA , I took over and still got the 30 days I needed on the union shoot to get into the union.

TW:  By this time, Carpenter and Cundey had developed incredibly visual chemistry. Talk about how you saw them work together.

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KGW:  They shared the same visual sensibility – the same ability to tell a story in visual terms. They truly saw eye to eye…which is why, having taught them to “point” to give me better photos, the shot of them pointing simultaneously in opposite directions always makes me laugh!

TW:  What was it like working with “old pros” Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine?

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KGW:  Always a pleasure. They have faces that come right into focus with almost no effort.

TW:  Tell us about your experience with Kurt “Snake Plissken” Russell. He really created an iconic character in the film.

KGW:  Kurt was a kick. Larry Franco, the AD and co producer was his brother-in-law and the two of them with John were always laughing and joking together. Kurt had no pretensions…when John said “cut” he was

Immediately himself again. He used Clint Eastwood’s delivery for Snake, and did it brilliantly.

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TW:  Was it nice seeing Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins again?

KGW:  Absolutely!

TW:  What was your impression of Production Designer Joe Alves? Did you talk to him at all about his involvement on Jaws?

KGW:  Never had a conversation with him.

TW:  What was your impression of Jim Cameron working on the matte plates and special effects photography? Did you get any inclination that he would go on to make the two most profitable films ever made?

KGW:  He was just one of the effects guys…who did a brilliant job of turning the Sepulveda Dam into Central Park by painting the New York skyline on glass to line up with the horizon in front of the camera, creating fluffy clouds for the glider trip and making city matte paintings.

TW:  When you got the job to do Halloween II, did you think the production could catch the same magic of the first film?

KGW:  I hoped it would. But Rick Rosenthal is a very different director from John. It was not an easy shoot.

TW:  Did you have any concern that John Carpenter wasn’t directing it?

KGW:  It was a very different experience. I was spoiled by John’s good humor and egalitarianism and was surprised to see how different the experience could be.

TW:  By the time Halloween II was made, Jamie Lee Curtis had done some other movies. Did you notice any difference in the way she carried herself?

KGW:  She was not as carefree. The experience on H2 was not as much fun for her because she had to spend the entire film in a wig and hospital gown….not fun.

TW:  Being that Rick Rosenthal was a rookie director, did Dean Cundey carry more of the load on Halloween II?

KGW:  I think so. A great DP always helps a director capture what’s in their imagination in the most creative and efficient way they can.

TW:  When you were shooting the stills with Michael Myers in the sequel, did you notice a marked difference between what Dick Warlock was doing versus Nick Castle’s originating performance? The mask didn’t look quite as good.

KGW:  I just did the best I could to capture the action of each scene under more difficult circumstances.

TW:  Was it “off-limits” to shoot any stills of the hot-tub scene with Pamela Susan Shoop and Leo Rossi? That scene is probably the most memorable in the whole film.

KGW:  I was not allowed to shoot that scene. Rick apparently didn’t trust my discretion.

TW:  Were you present for the explosive ending? If so, how far away where you from the blast? I heard it went off much bigger than originally anticipated.

KGW:  The burn was bigger than anticipated and the zippers in Dick Warlock’s suit heated up pretty badly.

I was about 25 or 30 feet away, maybe?

TW:  Talk about Christine, as it’s the last film you shot on a John Carpenter movie and Debra Hill wasn’t involved. Who contacted you about the job?

KGW:  I don’t remember who contacted me. But DP Don Morgan was terrific and I went from my 3rd to my 6th month of pregnancy with my second son while shooting that film.

TW:  John Carpenter had made The Thing in between the last time you worked with him. In my opinion, The Thing is one of the best movies ever made. But Carpenter was unjustly criticized and the film didn’t’ do well at the box office. Did you notice any difference in the director, because he’s admitted how deeply it hurt him?

KGW:  John actually made The Thing after Christine.

I didn’t get to shoot “The Thing” because of the old seniority system the union had at that time, which no longer exists, than goodness. I didn’t see John again until many many years later. I think working within the studio system with executives micromanaging things has taken much of the fun out of filmmaking for John.

TW:  Talk about the amazing cast of Christine. I think it’s John Carpenter’s most underrated film. Two of the exceptional actors, Keith Gordon and John Stockwell would go on to become excellent directors Share something about working with each of them.

KGW:  Keith never left the set after a scene to go to the Winnebago – he always stayed close to the camera so he could watch and listen as John would work with Don Morgan to set up the next shot. He learned how to direct by watching the best!

TW:  William Ostrander’s performance as tough guy “Buddy Repperton” was powerful. What were your thoughts of what you captured him doing through your lens?

KGW:  He was very charismatic and a very good actor. He and Alexandra Paul were a couple for quite awhile.

TW:  Robert Prosky was unforgettable as the abrasive junkyard lord “Will Darnell.” What do you remember about the late actor?

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KGW:  Great face! And Roberts Blossom as the evil guy who sells the car to Arnie – I think my photo of him holding the keys to Christine sums up the whole movie!

 

 

 

 

TW:  Alexandria Paul was right on as the object of Arnie Cunningham’s affection. What did you think of the young actress?

KGW:  She was very sweet. She was a vegetarian, so when she had to choke on a burger, there was no burger in it!

TW:  How did cinematographer Donald M. Morgan work in comparison to Dean Cundey?

KGW:  They are both wonderful cinematographers and both worked beautifully with John. Don Morgan has a charming machismo and was very protective of me, especially when we were blowing up gas stations

TW:  Were you present for Roy Arbogast engineering the reconstruction of Christine, after the bad guys had beaten her up?

KGW:  We had dozens of Plymouth Furies, in various stages of destruction or rigged for effects. Some of the reconstitution of Christine was film run in reverse!

TW:  What are your fondest memories of working on Christine and did you realize it would be the last time you would work with John Carpenter?

KGW:  Being pregnant, I remember how the whole crew was looking out for my safety. They even build barricades to protect me from explosions and flying car debris.

It felt like a family, the way John’s crews always felt. I would have been very sad if I’d known it was my last experience on one of his films. Working with John was one of the great joys of my life.

TW:  When you look back at your experience of working with John Carpenter what stands out?

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KGW:  His clarity of vision and his good humor (and his appreciation for the value of the stills).

TW:  I want to thank you Kim for capturing such important, precious moments on all the films you did with John Carpenter. I know I’m not alone in saying those films are and were very important in my life. As a huge fan, your book On the Set with John Carpenter gives everyone an invaluable glimpse of what it was like being on those production sets. F or that, I am forever grateful.

KGW:  Thank YOU for your kind words and for letting others know about the book. It was a real joy for me to put the book together and reconnect with all of those friends I had worked with so long ago. It was a genuine labor of love and I am so happy the fans of John’s films are getting to share the wonderful experiences I had. I hope everyone who loves the book will put their own capsule reviews on Amazon!